Born in 1952 to an English mother and Nigerian father, Paul Ubana Jones was introduced to the work ethic to which he still subscribes at a very young age. "I was five or six when I started pushing barrows around London's East End markets for a shilling," he says. "I learned very young that you need a strong work regime and if you don't work hard, nothing happens."
Paul Ubana Jones, whose career has been largely self-managed, has made sure that something is always happening. A New Zealand resident since 1987, Jones was one of Pagan Records' earliest signings (seven albums to date) and he has earned a reputation as a virtuoso guitarist and a solo performer. Although not an international star, Paul Ubana Jones has gained fans in parts of Australia, Europe and North America, and few performers have toured New Zealand so extensively.
His earliest influences included Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson but Bob Dylan made the greater impression.
Jones picked up the guitar at age eleven and his earliest influences included Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson but Bob Dylan made the greater impression; Dylan songs still feature in his repertoire. At age 18, he began three years of formal training at Chiswick Music School, studying classical guitar and cello. Jones says, "I believe that to learn your craft you should study the whole landscape of music – Elgar, Mahler, Beethoven; diversity will benefit you, whether your music is reggae, rock or blues."
It was this interest in diversity which saw Paul Ubana Jones play a variety of musical styles throughout the 1970s - he performed baroque and renaissance music as part of a trio (two guitars and flute) and played rhythm guitar in a be-bop group. In 1975-76 he played electric guitar in an Athens nightclub band featuring an eight-piece brass section with a drummer. Later back in London he then put his own band together named Ubana without a drummer but with a monster Brazilian conga player and percussionist, Jao Boscoe d'Oliviera – "we didn't want a drum kit drummer, just congas and double bass to get the groove."
Six months in Greece, 18 months in the south of France, sporadic visits to North Africa and 10 months in the USA ("still hung up with race issues"); for seven years he was based out of Zurich, Switzerland. He played clubs, pubs and small concert halls; busking was always another option. Along the way Paul Ubana Jones developed his own style, composing his own songs and rearranging the music of others, "mostly a melange of black American music and English folk."
In 1981 he met his future wife, Corinne, and after holidaying in New Zealand decided to immigrate. "We'd read about New Zealand and we thought it would be a great place to raise a family." Aotearoa was everything that Paul and Corinne hoped it would be and in 1987 the couple with two kids (and more to come later) was accepted as immigrants, initially settling in Raglan.
It was in Raglan where Gary McCormick came across Jones and invited the recently-arrived immigrant to Gisborne, to discuss a series of collaborative performances, the first of many tours together. The Jones family themselves soon shifted to the East Coast, later shifting to Motueka before settling in Oxford, North Canterbury.
Pagan remains his record company although he has also recorded an album, I Need A Storm (1992) for Chicago's Flying Fish Records.
Jones' recording career began in 1989 with a self-titled album; Pagan remains his record company although he has also recorded an album, I Need A Storm (1992) for Chicago's Flying Fish Records.
Despite the pockets of support across the globe (he spends three to four months overseas every year) New Zealand remains his main market. "New Zealand is very hard," Jones says. "I'm perceived as a fringe performer - I'm not Māori and I don't sing specifically about New Zealand – but I see myself as playing 'world music', my heart goes out to the world."
Jones is particularly popular on the festival circuits in Canada and western Europe, maybe not headlining but sharing stages with some of the world's greats. He has supported Joan Armatrading, Bob Dylan and Nora Jones in concert and toured with Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo'. He has appeared at Australia's Byron Bay Blues & Roots Festival on half a dozen occasions although he remains largely ignored across the Tasman. "I figured that Byron Bay would act as a springboard for an Australian career but no luck there. It's a tough nut, Australia, it's not about your talent. Very few Aboriginal performers have broken through and you see very few non-white faces on television."
Genuine Australian success may elude him but in New Zealand Paul Ubana Jones is in constant demand, regularly performing a diverse mix of gigs and the occasional concert support, and conducting high school workshops. He's a class act and there's no one quite like him on the NZ circuit.